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What is a White Paper? (And what is NOT?)

by | Feb 8, 2021 | B2B Copywriting, Collateral, Lead Generation, White Papers, Technology Marketing | 0 comments

What is a white paper?

If I were to ask you to define the term “white paper,” could you give me a clear definition?

Would it be roughly the same as your prospect’s definition?

These are important questions for technology marketers, because technology buyers attach great importance to white papers. When Eccolo Media was publishing their annual B2B Technology Collateral Survey Report, tech buyers consistently rated white papers to be the most influential of all collateral… every year Eccolo did the survey. i

Yet, there seems to be no consensus among B2B marketers on what constitutes a white paper. Many apply the term very loosely. I’ve seen technical research papers, application notes, survey reports, trade journal article reprints, even PowerPoint sales presentations, all given the label “white paper.”

That’s a big mistake, in my opinion.

What Tech Buyers Want from a White Paper

Surveys show technology buyers have certain expectations when it comes to white papers. If your white paper fails to meet those expectations, you risk disappointing your prospects. And that means lower ROI.

In other words, it pays to keep buyers’ expectations in mind when planning white paper projects.

What are those expectations? What do tech buyers want from a white paper? We can get a good idea by looking at some of Eccolo’s other findings.

In several of their surveys, Eccolo asked tech buyers the point in the sales cycle where they first consumed white papers. In each case, respondents indicated that they were far more likely to read a white paper in the pre-sale or initial sale process—the information-gathering stages—rather than later in the sales process, where they’re evaluating specific solutions. i

Another question Eccolo has asked is, “When reading white papers, what is most likely to disappoint you?” In 2010, the top four responses were:

1. Poorly written

2. Not technical enough

3. No real-life cases

4. Too much product/vendor info ii

In other words, what technology buyers want from white papers is solid, well-written technical information they can use to solve a problem and to help them evaluate and justify a purchasing decision. They’re not looking for product information when they pick up a white paper.

Choosing the Best White Paper Definition

That being the case, how should we define the term “white paper” to make sure our white papers meet our prospects’ expectations? Let’s look at a few definitions others have come up with… defines a white paper as:

An authoritative report or guide that helps solve a problem.

TechTarget, a leading distributor of white papers to technology buyers, has said a white paper is:

An article that states an organization’s position or philosophy about a social, political or other subject, or a not-too-detailed technical explanation of an architecture, framework or product technology.

And now from three white paper writing experts. First, Jonathan Kantor, author of the book Crafting White Paper 2.0 and the White Paper Pundit blog. He calls a white paper:

A document between six and twelve pages whose purpose is to educate, inform and convince a reader through the accurate identification of existing problems and the presentation of beneficial solutions that solve those challenges.

For Michael Stelzner, Founder and CEO of Social Media Examiner and Social Media Marketing World, and author of the book Writing White Papers, a white paper is:

A persuasive document that usually describes problems and how to solve them.

And finally, white paper writer Gordon Graham, also known as That White Paper Guy, defines a white paper as:

A persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a recommended solution to a certain problem.

Of these, I prefer Graham’s definition. Like Stelzner’s, it’s short and simple, and it identifies two key attributes (also found in Kantor’s definition) of successful white papers: first, they are persuasive, and second, they help solve problems. Plus, Graham’s definition emphasizes the use of solid information (facts and logic), which technology buyers say they want in a white paper.

Three Authentic Types of White Papers

Using Graham’s definition and what we’ve learned about what our prospects are looking for in a white paper, I feel there are three types of documents that can legitimately wear the white paper label.

The first of these is the “problem/solution.” A problem/solution white paper examines an existing problem and promotes a recommended solution. It tries to make an air-tight case for the superiority of that solution over others. The recommended solution is often an emerging one that may still be relatively unknown to the market. While companies typically create problem/solution white papers to sway readers toward their own products, it is a best practice in problem/solution white papers to address the solution in generic terms—to speak of a solution class rather than a specific product.

The second type of white paper, the “backgrounder,” takes the opposite approach. The backgrounder begins by describing an emerging technology, methodology, or innovative product and then demonstrates its advantages over its predecessors in addressing the problem it was designed to solve. It’s essentially a deep dive into the technology, methodology, or product.

I should point out, however, that product backgrounders are often aimed at readers at the end of the sales cycle, when they’re making technical evaluations of candidates for purchase.

The third is the “numbered list.” This type of white paper discusses a number of points relative to a central topic. It explores the central topic by breaking it down into bite-size chunks. These numbered points are, again, usually aimed at solving a specific problem.

Note: It’s also possible to have whitepapers that are hybrids of a numbered list and either a problem/solution or backgrounder.

Besides their problem-solving nature, what these three types of white papers have in common is that they position your company as a thought leader and trusted advisor, rather than as a mere vendor. You’re not trying (overtly) to convince prospects to buy your product or service. You’re educating them on the available options and helping them understand why one particular solution is the best choice for solving their problem.

Renaming the Rest

So, what do we do with all the other content we’ve been calling white papers? After all, your best prospects will eventually want detailed product information. And perhaps you have other thought-leadership pieces that don’t really fit our definition of a white paper.

Why not call those documents really are. Give them descriptive names that let prospects know what they’re downloading. Help customers find what they’re really looking for when they’re looking for it.

Say you have a document that describes how to use your specific product in a given application. Why not call it an application note or an application guide? The results of a study or survey can simply be called a research report. A technical paper one of your engineers presented at a conference? Call it a technical paper.

And if you have a piece that’s a combination of forms, the term “special report” often works well.

Remember, technology buyers have certain expectations when it comes to white papers. They’re expecting solid, problem-solving information, not product literature. If you’re going to publish a white paper, you need to be sure you live up to those expectations.

Take-Away Points

Technology buyers tend to read white papers early in the purchasing cycle. to educate themselves on their problem and possible solutions, before they’re ready to evaluate detailed product information.

What tech buyers want from white papers is solid, well-written technical information they can use to solve a problem and to help them evaluate and justify a purchasing decision.

When planning your next white paper project, remember this definition from Gordon Graham:

White paper:  A persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a recommended solution to a certain problem.

Next Steps

Want to express your point of view on this article? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Want some help crafting a white paper that meets and exceeds technology buyer expectations? Call me at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or send me an email at


i Eccolo Media 2008 to 2015 B2B Technology Collateral Survey Reports,

ii Eccolo Media 2010 B2B Technology Collateral Survey Report,, September 2010.

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